Sapa town is located in a remote, stunningly beautiful, and mountainous region (about 100 kilometers in diameter) of northernmost Vietnam bordering on China. The region consists of rice-terraced mountain slopes and the many small villages of Vietnamese ethnic minority groups. Vietnam has over 40 ethnic groups, eight of which dominate the villages and countryside of the Sapa region. Mount Fan Si Pan, the highest peak in the Vietnam, is located in the region very near to Sapa town.
I was in the Sapa region on 5 stunningly clear days in May when the landscape was bright green. The landscape is at its most colorful during late August and early September when the rice paddies are not only green, but also yellow and red in color due to the different varieties of rice planted in the terraces, and the maturity of the rice crop.
My five days in Sapa were consumed with hiking dirt paths through rice-terraced slopes, mountain ridges, and valley bottoms, and lush vegetation from ethnic village to ethnic village; hiking Ham Rong (Jaw of the Dragon) Mountain; ; motorbiking to more distant scenic spots in the region such as Hua Thao; taking photographs relentlessly; motorbiking over the highest mountain pass in Vietnam to the 1,000 meter high Silver (Thac Bac) Waterfall; speaking at length with the ethnic Vietnamese in the region (their spoken English is excellent); visiting food markets in the region, and eating a variety of local foods. The motorbike ride to Silver Waterfall is spectacular. The road crosses Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam and the ride is chockfull of incredible scenery. Closer to Sapa, Ham Rong Mountain (Jaw of the Dragon) is located immediately next to Sapa town. A hike to the peak of Ham Rong Mountain provides stunning views of Sapa town and the surrounding landscape. When visiting Sapa town, this hike is simply a must do.
To get to the Sapa region, I took the nine-hour, night-train ride from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai, and then from Lao Cai I took a bus for the 50 minute ride through incredible scenery to Sapa town. I used Sapa town as my base for exploring the region during my five day stay. Sapa is about 250 miles (400 kilometers) northwest of Hanoi.
Each of the ethnic groups has unique customs and manners of dress. The groups are named the Hmong, Dao, Giay, Tay, Muong, Thai, Hoa, and Xa Pho. Their clothing is hand-made, predominantly from hemp (yes, marijuana) grown in the area. The ethnic people do not smoke their hemp. They use it only to make clothing. The thought of smoking hemp is ridiculous to them. Based on my conversations with them, smoking hemp (or anything) would be an outrageously unhealthy thing to do. Typically, their homes consist of three small rooms, dirt floors, drafty wood plank walls and roofs, and an indoor fire pit for cooking and for heat during the winter.
The total resident population of the region is about 32,000, with the Hmong and Dao being the most populous ethnic groups. The population of Sapa town itself is a little over 3,000, consisting of people from all over Vietnam who have moved to the region to work in the many hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, and other tourist-oriented establishments.
In the spirit of a providing a bit of geographic information, note that Sapa town itself is located about 5,000 feet above sea level (1500 meters) in the Lien Son mountain range, also referred to as the Tonkinese Alps. The Lien Son mountain range is the easternmost extremity of the Himalayas. Mount Fan Si Pan, standing at over 9,000 feet above sea level (3,000 meters), is located near Sapa town and is the highest peak in Vietnam. Fan Si Pan is the last easternmost peak in the Himalayan mountain chain. The climate of the region is subtropical during the summer and temperate during the winter, when snowfall is common.
Staple foods for the regional ethnic populations are the rice and corn that they grow on the steep, terraced mountain slopes. There is no flat land for hundreds of miles, so terraces are necessary and were developed over thousands of years of farming in the region. Hemp and indigo also grown and used to make and dye clothing. It is a labor-intensive life with the constant quest for survival. So, the scenery reflects the relationship of the ethnic people their environment. Many of the corn fields are planted on immensely steep slopes without terraces. In other parts of the world, including the U.S., growing corn in this manner is unimaginable.
Wood for building of the modest homes, for cooking, and for heating is harvested from the forested higher elevations where there is no farming (because it is too steep to build terraces). These higher altitudes are dominated by a variety of species of evergreens and deciduous trees, and dwarf bamboo. And of course, the lower elevations are dominated by terrace farming.
Below are two galleries – the first is a gallery of scenery photos taken during my hikes in the area, and the second is a gallery of photos of the local ethnic people, their homes, and more. The photos in the second gallery are captioned to provide perspective.
For each photo gallery below, be sure to click on any photo to trigger a “lightbox” presentation of the the photo gallery — doing so really brings the photos to life.